June 7, 2019 by Greg Meckbach
If you provide commercial liability coverage for religious organizations, you might want to check Friday’s Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal v. J.J.
The decision paves the way for a class action lawsuit against Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory, as well as the Congregation of Holy Cross, by some survivors of sexual abuse in Quebec.
The representative plaintiff, identified as J.J., was an altar boy in Montreal during the early 1950s. He alleges he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by both a teacher and also a priest who worked at the oratory. The teacher died in 2004 and the priest died in 2001.
The main issue in the case is whether the Congregation of Holy Cross could be liable for negligence in relation to sexual assault of children decades ago. Allegations against the oratory and the congregation have not been proven in court.
Canada’s top court has rejected the congregation’s argument that it cannot be held liable for acts alleged to have happened before 2008, which was when the organization was incorporated.
J.J. filed his lawsuit in 2013. Quebec Superior Court Justice Julien Lanctot declined in 2015 to certify it as a class action. That ruling was then overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal in a 2-1 ruling released in 2017. The provincial appeal court’s ruling, which allowed the lawsuit to proceed, was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in its divided ruling released June 7, 2019.
This does not necessarily mean the plaintiff has won. Among the next steps are for a court to hear arguments from all sides and make a decision.
Dissenting Supreme Court of Canada judge Suzanne Cote would have restored Justice Lanctot’s original ruling that stopped the lawsuit in its tracks.
The judges disagreed on whether the St. Joseph’s Oratory was under the control of the Congregation of Holy Cross. The oratory argued it is a separate organization that maintains a monument and place of worship. The congregation is essentially a religious society. The teacher who assaulted J.J. is a member of the congregation. The priest who assaulted J.J. worked at the oratory.
After hearing the defendants’ appeal, the majority of Supreme Court judges argued that the congregation controlled the oratory because all of the oratory’s directors were members of the congregation at the time of the alleged assaults; also, the top court ruled, Quebec laws stipulate that there is a hierarchical relationship between a religious member and his or her religious community.
Neither the oratory nor the congregation are business corporations, but they are “special legal persons,” noted Justice Russell Brown, writing for the majority.